Manufacturers today face a daunting reality. Increased global competition seems to be popping up everywhere, customers are increasingly finicky, and products must be designed faster—and at less cost—than ever before. Improving product development processes through the deployment of innovative design technologies may be what sets them apart, and hopefully ahead, of their competition.
One of the stages of the development process involves the development of a working model of the product for the purpose of testing various design features and eliciting feedback from customers. Rapid prototyping, a huge technical advancement over clay models, enabled manufacturers to rapidly create working models to prove out designs and reduce the risk of products not meeting customer expectations after they are manufactured.
While essential, rapid prototyping remains an expensive and time-consuming stage of product development. Another avenue by which manufacturers are pursuing to prove out designs and assure manufacturability prior to actual physical prototyping is digital prototyping, the use of 3D models to test the form, fit and function of a product before it is built.
Digital prototypes enable design teams to simulate how a proposed product will operate under real-world condition while still in digital form. While physical prototyping remains essential prior to manufacturing, digital prototyping enables engineers and designers to visualize, analyze and optimize designs before physical prototypes are created. Digital prototypes also make it easier for design teams to incorporate the voice of the customer early and throughout the design process.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways digital prototyping can benefit manufacturers.
Mend the digital divide. Many of the stages of design still suffer from not being digitally integrated due to the use of different toolsets with incompatible data formats. Digital prototypes require all design data—conceptual, mechanical, and electrical—be integrated, enabling design teams to maintain design intent and reduce downstream errors.
Facilitate re-use. The reality is that most “new” products are in actuality offshoots of previous products. Capturing designs in digital form facilitates the reuse of legacy design data in the form of components or entire assemblies to create new products.
Foster innovative thinking. Digital prototypes afford engineers to work freely and creatively without huge overheads, because designs are still in digital form and somewhat fluid. As a result the fear of making mistakes is lessened. The freedom to explore multiple “what if” iterations leads to high-quality and more innovative designs.
“Pre-sell” design concepts. Digital prototypes can be used to test market a product long before it resides in physical form. Rendered images of the digital prototype as well as animations can be used in brochures or sales literature, marketing focus groups, trade shows, and meetings with customers.
Easier design collaboration. Customers can easily understand designs when presented with accurate representations via digital prototypes. In addition, because the design still resides in a digital format, changes or refinements per customer feedback can be easily and quickly made.
Reduce physical prototyping. Testing out designs—both from a structural as well as ultimate market acceptance perspectives—enables manufacturers to cut out some of the expensive, time-consuming physical prototyping that is necessary prior to actual manufacturing.
Leveraging the use of digital prototypes as opposed to physical prototypes helps mend the digital divisions common among the separate stages of product development, furthering a company’s ability to maintain design intent throughout development and foster innovation. These digital prototypes can also be created in hours or days, not weeks, so design schedules can be maintained and costs can be reduced.